seandugganby Sean Duggan

The House of Commons Health Select Committee has today reported on mental health support for children and adolescents and found the whole system wanting in many vital respects.

The Committee’s report, Children’s and Adolescents’ Mental Health and CAMHS, finds “serious and deeply ingrained problems with the commissioning and provision of children’s and adolescents’ mental health services” at all levels, from early intervention to specialised services.

It finds that provision of services at all levels is patchy from one area to another, and that information about levels of need and how well they are met is poor. It speaks of schools where teachers are ‘scared’ to discuss mental health with students and where how to promote children’s safety online is poorly understood. It unearths evidence of children being turned away from services or made to wait for weeks and months when they or their parents seek help, and it raises continued concerns about children being taken to police cells in a crisis.

The report reflects growing evidence about pressures on child and adolescent mental health services and serious shortcomings in the way the NHS, local authorities and schools meet young people’s mental health needs. Its warnings must be heeded as a matter of urgency and lead to concerted action across the whole system to make major improvements in the level and quality of support for children’s mental health.

There is growing evidence that investing in children’s mental health is both essential to their future and excellent value for public money. Better mental health support for women during and after pregnancy can cut some of the £8 billion annual cost of perinatal mental health problems. Targeted access to parenting programmes for families whose children have severe behavioural problems can dramatically improve a child’s future prospects and generate savings to a range of public sector budgets. And schools that take a ‘whole school approach’ to mental health – offering teaching about mental health and wellbeing, tackling bullying and supporting children when difficulties emerge – can also benefit considerably in terms of improve attainment and behaviour.

Improving children’s mental health requires leadership at all levels – from the Department of Health, NHS England and the Department for Education to local Health and Wellbeing Boards, clinical commissioning groups and every school in England. We need better data about levels of need and we need to hold commissioners accountable for meeting them. But we also need a new form of leadership that seeks to engage children and young people in designing and delivering mental health support that meets their needs, speaks their language and offers them helpful support to recover on their own terms.

No child or young person, of any age, should be turned away when they seek help for their mental health. No child should be made to wait unacceptably long times for treatment they need, especially in a crisis. And no one should be left on a ‘cliff edge’ at the age of 18 when children’s services stop working with them.

Today’s report is a wake-up call for government, for CCGs, for local councils and for schools to make children’s mental health the priority it deserves to be and to act now.